Wednesday, November 5, 2008

After the Storm

When George W. Bush was elected our 43rd President, I was 13 years old. It was towards the beginning of my eighth grade year, and I didn't know anything real. I knew I was a Democrat; I knew Gore lost; I knew Bush was stupid, and I knew he shouldn't have won. I felt something like outrage, very dim, akin to the feeling I got when I saw a massacre on TV, or read about the Holocaust; very bad things that were very far away. I was 13, and I thought I'd live forever. This too shall pass.

Less than eight months after Bush was sworn into office, terrorists struck the World Trade Center, killing thousands and spawning an international nightmare. Trapped as I was in an airtight bubble of liberal intellectualism, I didn't know anyone who thought Saddam was involved; I didn't know anyone who thought there were weapons in Iraq. Even I, who knew nothing real, knew something was happening in America. I knew things were moving outside my field of vision, and I knew no one I trusted was controlling them. Something was changing.

By November 2004, I knew a few more things, one of which was that no sane person would elect George Bush a second time. Nobody I knew was wild about Kerry - he was stiff, professorial, uninspiring - but nobody cared what he was. We cared what he wasn't, and that was Bush - Bush, the Antichrist. Bush, the Great Satan. Bush, the Bringer of all Evil, attempted killer of the American Dream. The Democrats could have run a corpse, and the corpse would win. I knew this. I was 17, and I knew it.

Bush won again, and the nightmare began in earnest.

There's no way I can explain to anyone from any other generation what it was like to spend those eight long years in Bush America. Everyone spent eight years, but my friends and I spent those eight years - those formative years, those years where you really learn the way the world works. We spent those eight years learning that the government would do anything it could to own us, and that the best we could hope for was to keep our noses down. We learned that you mustn't grow a beard, or you're a terrorist; we learned that you mustn't smoke a joint, or you're an enemy of the state. We learned that wanting universal health care makes you a communist, wanting universal marriage makes you a fag, and wanting free press makes you a tool of the liberal media. We learned that our enemies hated our freedoms, the greatest of which was to give up all freedom for some tiny measure of safety. We learned that this was one nation under God, and that God loves guns and hates gays and gave us the right to be America, World Police. Bow down, or prepare to be annihilated.

We learned that oil was thicker than blood. We learned that everyone has a price. We learned that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, and only the good die young.

For the first few years, we were angry; we couldn't believe that this ignorant, bigoted oil baron had appealed to the lowest common denominator and won himself a country. We took to the streets, we protested the war, we talked among ourselves of something happening to change this. The cavalry was coming, and the world would soon be right again.

The cavalry never came, and by the time Bush took office again there was no one my age with much hope left. We were starting to realize how good the Clinton years had been; we were starting to think we would never see another surplus, that we would never end this war, that they'd strike down Roe v. Wade and then Fred Phelps would run for office and then nobody would care if Adolph Hitler took the throne.

We were starting to think that the great American experiment had failed. A hundred-year flare of hope and prosperity had sputtered and died, and we'd missed it. No one would ever want to come here again.

Barack Obama's election doesn't mean that we were wrong. It doesn't mean Roe v. Wade is here to stay, or that the poor will be rich, or that the sick will be well. It doesn't mean that my friends and I are free to say what we want, think what we want, write what we want or worship what we want. It doesn't mean that Bush and his kind are gone, or even that they don't have power anymore.

It means, though, that there is another America besides Bush America. It means that things change, and democracy still happens, and there is a chance - a chance - that I have not missed the American Dream. It means there is a chance that something better is ahead - that things do not always get worse.

It means that when I was 13 and I thought, this too shall pass, I was right.


Anonymous said...

So now your *21* and a sage on the ways of the world.

Sorry kiddo...but you are still a child with a lot to learn. But don't worry about thinking you actually have a clue at age 21 in a self admitted insular happens to lots of kids. This too shall pass.

John said...

"It doesn't mean that my friends and I are free to say what we want, think what we want, write what we want or worship what we want."

Bush was awful, but I honestly don't think any of these freedoms were infringed on in any serious way by Bush. The internet has exploded during the Bush years, so one could probably argue that the freedom to express one's self has actually increased.

Free Radical said...

John, I wasn't arguing that in all cases my freedoms had been eroded systematically by Bush or his Administration personally - although in some cases they were. Freedom of worship, for example, has been in very serious danger since the evangelicals became a serious political movement.

It's also, though, the general atmosphere of xenophobia and pro-American zeal that has damaged (perhaps permanently) the individual's right to disagree with the mainstream in a public forum. If my constitutional freedoms were really being upheld, I'd be able to hold "America Sucks" meetings at the local university where we all learned Arabic and talked about Marxist revolution. I don't think that would be safe in the current America, which has never seriously protested the Patriot Act and its -unprecedented- expansion of government powers.

So yes, indeed, the internet has expanded, but the government's ability to surveil internet activities has arguably kept pace. I'm not saying anyone I know has ever been arrested and taken to Guantanamo, but we're still fairly mainstream (as radical liberals go). We should be able to edge a lot further towards political radicalism before sacrificing our Constitutional protections.